Soon after Betty White hosted “Saturday Night Live,” I remember asking my friend Nate, a fellow “Golden Girls” fanatic, what he thought of all the fuss around White’s meteoric comeback. He rolled his eyes, shrugged, and said, “It’s just weird that everybody’s finally come around to realizing that Betty White is amazing. Where have they been?”
He was right: the recent trend of people catching on to the fact that Betty White is terrific felt patronizing, and not just because most were astonished that an adorable old lady could land a joke better than most “SNL” hosts one-third her age (I’m looking at you, January Jones); it was the belated appreciation of White’s fabulousness that made all of us look even sillier.
And now, there’s Joan Rivers.
Rivers, younger than White by over a decade, has been working steadily since the 1950s, and, after this week’s release of a great new documentary about her life, “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” she is poised to become the Next Belated Big Thing — for those who needed 60 years to catch on to the fact that she is wonderful.
Unlike Betty White, Rivers didn’t have the benefit of starring in a series of beloved television shows, nor did she play characters as affable, matronly, or warmly dotty. Rivers honed her act as a stand-up in the 1960s, when few other women had the balls to talk about being unf**kable on stage at nightclubs or joke about women who fly to Puerto Rico for illegal abortions on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Since then, she’s worked consistently — check out her entry on Wikipedia and try to find more than three years in a row where she hasn’t had a TV show — because Rivers, who defines happiness as a full appointment book, doesn’t have the luxury of turning down projects that aren’t classy, or cushy, or critically celebrated. She’ll sell her jewelry on QVC; she’ll do commercials and cruises. She’ll wake up early, shoot an episode of her own TV show, do a guest spot on another one, wrap for the day, then get downtown in time to do her weekly stand-up show at the Westbeth Theater. Joan Rivers loves to work, and she’ll stop when she’s dead.
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So why did it take so long for audiences to respect not just her work ethic, but to realize how talented she is? Based on the reactions so far to “A Piece of Work,” it seems that what people find most shocking from the film is that she is hilarious. David Edelstein, in New York magazine, remarks how, after watching her stand-up in the film, he was “ready to be her slave,” then delivers what I consider a backhanded compliment, saying, “I never knew she worked this blue, that she had this much Lenny Bruce in her.” (I always considered Bruce to be overrated.)
A lot of the delayed appreciation for Joan Rivers has to do with the contempt that familiarity breeds. She’s never left, and why should she? Her act is as resilient as her energy level, which, at 77, is enviable. (For contrast: I am sometimes too lazy to fast forward through commercials when I’m watching shows on my DVR, which is why I can sing Subway’s “$5 Footlong” song to you, if I am asked nicely.) But, like anything else in comedy, Rivers’ comeback is also about timing. As Rivers’ agent says in the film, Joan knows that in order to get hit by lightning, you have to stand in the rain. And after 60 years of getting soaking wet, Rivers is about to get struck again where she stands — feet planted firmly, and not going anywhere.
Julie Klausner is a comedian and author, whose fantastically funny book I Don’t Care About Your Band: What I Learned from Indie Rockers, Trust Funders, Pornographers, Felons, Faux-Sensitive Hipsters, and Other Guys I’ve Dated is available on Amazon. Find her over at JulieKlausner.com.
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